Karachi, You’re Killing Me! | Saba Imtiaz

Laugh, actually

“It’s Karachi. It’s where life and love come to die. It has nothing," cries Ayesha, the narrator of Saba Imtiaz’s first novel, Karachi, You’re Killing Me!, in mock-despair. Much to her surprise—though the reader can see it coming all along—Ayesha not only survives the city but also finds love, if in an unlikely man, by the end of the book.

A cross between Helen Fielding’s Bridget Jones’s Diary and Moni Mohsin’s The Diary of a Social Butterfly, Imtiaz’s comedy of manners is set in a society where the prospect of romance seems remote. Ayesha is a 28-year-old journalist with the gift of finding herself in absurd, often implausible, situations. From interviewing couture-cupcake designers to reporting on gang wars, her brief is to cover almost everything that happens in Karachi for a measly, and usually much-delayed, salary. Her boss, Kamran, is the editor from hell every newsroom dreads. Single and frizzy-haired, Ayesha lives with her father and an imperious cat, who behaves towards her like a jealous sibling. Alcohol-guzzling, chain-smoking, fast-food-gorging Ayesha teeters on the brink of becoming a walking cliché but is, amazingly, able to rise above the trappings of conventional “chick-lit".

Although Imtiaz draws on every trick in the book—the diary format popularized by Fielding, the biting sarcasm of Mohsin—her humour is very much her own, muted but filled with sharp observations that come with the advantage of being a reporter on the job. Each entry is prefaced with a “Headline of the day"—“Deadly brain-eating amoeba resurfaces in Karachi", “Taliban gift car to militant who shot at a drone," and so on—that captures the mood of the milieu Ayesha comes from with the economy of a haiku.

Karachi, You’re Killing Me!: Random House India, 272 Pages, Rs299
Karachi, You’re Killing Me!: Random House India, 272 Pages, Rs299

Working in Karachi also ensures there’s never a dull moment. Few cars are spared by muggers at traffic lights. Ayesha’s friend and fellow journalist, Zara, is robbed of her handbag and mobile phone at one, along with the booze and mixer she was carrying with her. A blast nearly kills Ayesha and leaves Kamran hysterical. Ayesha has to chase a story involving a runaway lion cub belonging to one of Karachi’s most notorious gunrunners and churn out a copy on the fashion week—hosted at an embargoed location for fear of being bombed by the Taliban—featuring models dressed as suicide bombers. It is a welcome break from her usual roster of work. “I’m exhausted from compiling election databases," she confesses, “it would be nice to get to talk to people for whom political activism means changing their Facebook status."

Ayesha’s coverage of the Karachi Literature Festival includes, among several priceless vignettes, a thinly disguised portrait of a well-known writer of purple prose, much adored in the West. It is bound to resonate with those who usually have to keep a straight face and write about such events for a living. The satire is pitch perfect and may hit those of us who live in the subcontinent harder than the rest. Refreshingly devoid of glosses and translations, Imtiaz’s novel is unapologetically faithful to the cultural nuances from which it emerges.

In spite of the mandatory romantic plot, Imtiaz does not get carried away by it. The men in Ayesha’s life, especially the smoking hot Jamie with whom she has a heady fling, are borderline dull. When Ayesha finally finds herself in the arms of her “Mr Darcy", she seems as much intrigued by her choice as the reader is—though things seemed to be headed that way halfway through the book. For all one knows, this could well be a false ending, a perfect excuse for a sequel that one would not want to miss.